This week I’m writing about the Victorian feminist and campaigner for women’s rights Bessie Rayner Parkes. Bessie was born in Birmingham, England on 16th June 1829 to Joseph Parkes, a prosperous solicitor, and his American wife Eliza Rayner Priestley. Her great-grandfather was the eminent scientist Joseph Priestley. Neither Bessie nor her brother Priestley were robust, and the family spent much time at Hastings for the curative sea air. Priestley died young in 1850.
In her early twenties she began a career in journalism, writing for local newspapers and radical feminist journals. One of Bessie’s first endeavours was to try and change the restrictive property laws that applied to married women. Bessie, together with her activist friends, interacted with women in the USA and in other European countries, adding an international dimension to their efforts. Bessie also belonged to the first women’s group that set out to obtain voting rights.
Bessie had a wide circle of literary and political friends. Together with Barbara Bodichon she formed the first organised women’s movement in Britain. She also became the editor of the first feminist British periodical, The English Woman’s Journal, published between 1858 and 1864 (its headquarters was in the famous Langham Place, synonymous with British feminist periodicals). In Essays on Women’s Work (1866) she argued that the laws of the country were based on the assumption that women were supported by their husbands or fathers, but with a shortage of men in the country, this was becoming less likely to happen. Parkes therefore suggested that it was necessary to improve the standard of education for girls.
Aged 38 and on a visit to France in 1867, Bessie fell in love with a Frenchman, Louis Belloc, of delicate health. They lived near Paris, and were married for only 5 years before Louis died of sunstroke in 1872, but the marriage produced two children, Marie Belloc Lowndes, and Hilaire Belloc. Both children went on to become renowned writers. After her husband’s death she returned to London and scaled down her involvement in women’s movements, but continued to write until late in life. She published 14 books, poetry, essays, a booklet on women’s rights, and literature for children and adolescents.
Bessie died at Slindon in Sussex on 23rd March 1925. Her great-granddaughter Ana Vicente (writing under the pseudonym Emma Lowndes) wrote Bessie’s biography.